Looking for Seeds of Theme, Central Ideas, and Social Issues in Our Nonfiction Books: Scaffolding, Structure, and Strategy

This past Friday and Monday (April 12 and 15), I wanted my students to have an opportunity to think a little more deeply about their nonfiction books.  Using a focal point from one of our Lucy Calkins units of study, I crafted a graphic organizer to help students identify each of the following elements in their reading so far:

  • Theme (this is an important element, but I am continuing to stress it because so many of my students have struggled with this concept all year)
  • Central Topic/Idea
  • Social Issues

We reviewed what concepts of theme, central idea/topic, and social issues at the beginning of class on Friday; in addition, I used a resource from our Calkins resource guide as an “anchor chart” for reference on the back of a graphic organizer I provided students.   Even though all students are not reading literary nonfiction, I felt the concepts would translate to the regular nonfiction books students were reading.

I did not provide a list of possible themes or social issues to my students on the first day because I wanted to see what they could identify for themselves.  While I do believe in scaffolding, I also think it is important to give students opportunities to wrestle with ideas.  Using a graphic organizer I’ve used in the past, I modified it to fit the three element structure to help students identify their thinking and evidence from the text to support it.

I modeled my thinking for students using one of my favorite books, Full Body Burden:  Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats.  I began by showing the book trailer video and then the beginnings of my work as I modeled a think aloud for each class.

After reading over my students’ work over the weekend, it was very clear that many were struggling to correctly identify a theme or social issue.   Instead, many of them were identifying central ideas and topics as themes and/or social issues.   Yesterday I provided them a working list of themes (not necessarily unique to our books, but a broad list) as well as a working list of common social issues.

After doing another review of the terms and the new lists, I asked students to place check marks next to themes and social issues they felt might be present in their books.  Students then had the opportunity to revise and/or add to any of the three sections that felt needed improvement or a complete rewrite.  Many students had an “aha!” moment in their thinking, but I was still worried last night when I read over their revisions and saw quite a few are still struggling even with the additional scaffolding.   I will continue a variety of strategies to triage this challenge in small groups and 1:1 over the next few weeks, but I am hopeful students will grow in these areas with continued support from me and their book groups as well as better understanding of their book as they get further into it,.

This work has definitely challenged my students and nudged their critical thinking.  In my next post, I’ll share how we are using this work in the student book clubs to grow everyone’s thinking and help students’ understanding of the concepts of theme, central topics/ideas, and social issues.  Until then, what strategies do you use to help students who are having difficulty grasping theme and/or understanding of social issues in a text?

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